‘Looming crisis’, ’red flag’, ‘tipping point’ in cricket’s struggle for its soul

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE in London

THREE notable figures emerged from the most storied building in cricket and made their way across the game’s grandest greensward on a golden afternoon.

Two wore dark grey jackets, flanking their comrade in his finely chequered blazer. The Marylebone Cricket Club’s (MCC) infamously garish bacon-and-egg tie gleamed from one of their necks. From another’s, the understated MCC city tie — the club’s elegant, angular crest on a navy background. Below the third neck hung a tie nondescript but for the impression that it had, years ago, been used to mop up a puddle of tomato sauce and hadn’t been washed since.

One’s hair was wispy and white with the wisdom of his 75 years. Next to him bobbed a head of mid-brown gelled spikiness. Then came a mane of jet black, billowing lightly on the breeze.

Their amble had an agelessness about it. They would have looked like they looked had they stepped out of the Lord’s pavilion and crossed the outfield on any golden afternoon between 1890 — when the building was completed — and today, give or take a few sartorial segues.

But Mike Brearley, the chair of MCC’s world cricket committee, and Brendon McCullum and Ramiz Raja, two of the committee members, were on their way to deliver to the reporters in the space age pressbox across the ground a thoroughly modern message.

In a conversation with the press that lasted more than half-an-hour, the phrase “looming crisis” became a refrain. There was also talk of a “red flag” and a “tipping point”.

“The game is facing if not a crisis [then] a looming potential crisis,” Brearley said. “This crisis needs to be noticed and taken seriously.

“The committee is worried that with the spread of privately owned T20 leagues and the rapid increase in remuneration, more players from countries lacking the funds to pay them well will choose these tournaments ahead of making themselves available for their countries.”

AB de Villiers was, of course, a case in point because of his decision not to play in South Africa’s test series against New Zealand, the current rubber against England and the coming engagement with Bangladesh.

What about the India and Australia series? Who knows.

“AB is a slightly unique situation but it’s another red flag [for test cricket],” McCullum said.

“We feel the development of these T20 leagues around the world has put pressure on players to make decisions when the test game is actually in really good stead.

“Last year’s statistics of 48 wins out of 52 tests played shows that, but it is important we look at the long-term sustainability of test cricket, ensuring it is still loved around the world. There is a feeling that in some countries test cricket is under pressure.”

Hang on a second, Mr McCullum. Isn’t it rich of you to voice that view and indeed sit on a committee that would seem to have the best interests of the game at heart when you are getting, well, rich from playing in T20 leagues? Aren’t you part of the problem?

“It’s not guys at the end of their career as much as guys from countries who don’t get paid enough money or get treated appropriately, and maybe do not get the opportunities they require,” McCullum said. “That’s where the T20 leagues become very attractive.

“It’s a matter of those countries being able to compensate those guys appropriately, so these T20 leagues are seen as something that can exist but the priority remains international cricket.

“The tipping point now is choosing T20 leagues or international cricket.”

De Villiers would seem to have made that choice, at least in terms of test cricket.

Speaking of which, it seems important to acknowledge that the very outfield that Brearley, McCullum and Raja had traversed would, later in the week, be the scene of the sweeping drama of the first test between England and South Africa.

Let’s watch this series with the respect, attention and wonder it deserves. We don’t know how many are left.

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